Out of the Ashes: The story of a Santa Rosa family that survived the Tubbs Fire — and hopes to help other disaster victims
by Marcia Antipa
The weekend before the 2017 Tubbs fire swept through Santa Rosa, Bill and Lynne Dorsey were visiting their son in Arizona. As their flight home landed on October 8, they noticed the plane was buffeted by unusually strong winds.
Before they went to bed in their Coffey Park neighborhood, they heard there was a fire in Napa, but were not too concerned. However, just a few hours later, they woke up to hear the wind rushing and howling around their house. Then, they looked out the window. “We could see the embers coming out of the sky and emergency vehicle lights.
At 2 a.m., a neighbor knocked on their door and told them the fire was heading their way. Bill and Lynne gathered a computer and cellphones, passports, birth certificates, and a few clothes. But there was little time for anything else.
“I looked at stacks of photo albums on a bookshelf. I had two drum sets and all kinds of percussion instruments. We just left all that behind, and in fifteen minutes we were out the door.”
Bill and Lynne made the decision to stay together, so they left Lynne’s car in the garage and drove out in one car. “We were driving through the wind, with embers, sticks, and dirt flying around us.”
Once outside Coffey Park, they found traffic backed up in all directions, with people trying to escape the flames. With only a partial tank of gas, Bill and Lynne decided to hunker down in a strip mall parking lot. They sat there for three hours, listening to the car radio until the sun came up. Finally, they drove to a friend’s home across town.
Later that day, the Dorseys drove back to Coffey Park to check the damage from the fire. Seven houses across the street from Bill and Lynne’s home were untouched. But their house was a pile of ashes and rubble.
“It was horrible. We lived in the house for 23 years, and raised two boys there.”
The Dorseys have come a long way from that frightening moment. Now, they have rebuilt their home and settled back into their lives and jobs. But it was two years of hard work and unsettled emotions.
Bill is a licensed clinical social worker at Kaiser Permanente in Santa Rosa. Lynne is an occupational therapist at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital.
“There were times in that first month I felt paralyzed, unable to think clearly and make decisions,” said Bill. “You’re dealing with all the grief and loss and you have to live life and build a house and go to work.”
Bill says he and Lynne helped one another, that when one was having a low day the other took over. They also relied on fire victim support groups as well as FEMA and other agencies.
The Dorseys also found serendipitous help from the American Red Cross. They had been shopping for a car to replace the one Lynne lost in the fire and found the exact make, model, year and color vehicle. However, it cost $500.00 more than the insurance company was willing to pay. The next day a friend encouraged them to register for services with the Red Cross.
“The nice young lady that registered us asked if we lost a car in the fire. She said the Red Cross will give you a $500.00 voucher toward transportation. God was smiling on us.”
Bill was inspired to help other disaster victims after attending an emergency preparedness fair in Sonoma County this September. He approached the American Red Cross booth to learn how to reach out to people recovering from Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas. He also agreed to tell his story in an interview for this article.
“It’s hell; it’s a terrible time, but taking one step at a time you can get through it. With the support of family and friends and maybe your faith community, you can get through it. There are angels out there who want to help. Let them help.”
Marcia Antipa is a volunteer writer with the Northern California Coastal Region.